Voyage Of Their Life


Diane Armstrong

Flamingo 2001


Teacher’s notes by Dr Neil E. Béchervaise




Issues surrounding migration and resettlement are as old, almost, as time itself. The banishment of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden and the flight from Israel each suggests essential movement and the need to rebuild, to relocate in a foreign land. That the land was seldom hospitable is no greater novelty, paradise may always be where we came from. A mistrust of foreigners, particularly dark-skinned men, is introduced in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and arguably brought to a climax in Othello. Neither of the stories is new, the art of literature is in the reworking of recognised plot-lines. Fear of Jewish settlers has an equally extensive line in literature and it is in this tradition that Diane Armstrong’s substantial volume can be viewed.


Armstrong’s recreation of stories from the voyage of the S.S. Derna in 1948 has been released at a point in Australia’s development when, yet again, xenophobic fears of ‘invasion by a foreign horde’ have been crystallised for essentially political purposes. In the arrival of refugees by boat via Indonesia, we have immediate experience of an essentially timeless aphorism: Change is always difficult.


Forced change, however, is an essential driver for new opportunities. Armstrong’s extensive stories of settlement and adjustment following the arrival of the Derna in Australia provide a sense of continuity that both amplifies her powerful portraits of dislocation from Europe, the Baltic States, Russia and the Middle East and reassures us that life is about moving on. Her sympathy with her characters, sometimes perhaps at the expense of fairness to her subject, allows us to share the vitality with which the Derna immigrants faced the trials of their voyage and subsequent revitalisation within an unfamiliar, unremitting and too often unwelcoming host country.


Student pre-reading activities


The sepia to silvered cover of the book suggests old photographs. The hair and clothing styles suggest another time. Working in small groups, decide what images are suggested for you by the cover design and then suggest whether the cover designer has provided support for a reader selecting a book of particular interest.


The cover notes suggest that the book "celebrates the spirit and resilience of those who have lost everything yet found the strength to rebuild their lives". Considering the diversity of Australian culture at the beginning of the twenty first century, does it seem reasonable to suggest that this, “is the story of Australia".


Australia has been substantially populated through migration booms following extensive wars. Work in small teams to research the main migration waves to Australia. Consider major reasons for people migrating to Australia, their current geographic spread and their representation in society - in schools, as doctors, as lawyers, as farmers, as politicians. To what extent have successive waves of migrants been integrated into Australian society?


The Story


The Voyage of Their Life is subtitled The Story of the SS Derna and its passengers but neither title is completely adequate to the task the author has set herself. Presented with neither a novel nor an autobiography, her readers are set adrift with hundreds of passengers on an ocean of dreams, joys, disappointment and amazing triumph in adversity. In this context, the story of the SS Derna is necessarily incomplete. It acts as a framework within which to explore the microcosm of displacement that it carries on a voyage from the cruelty, hatred and destruction of post-war Europe to the ambitions, hopes and dreams of a new world; a world improbably imagined through jingoistic Chips Rafferty movies and incomplete stories conveyed through the letters of loved ones.


In two parts, the story of the voyage is completed before the trials and triumphs that follow in its aftermath are revealed. Part 1 of the Voyage establishes the backgrounds and the immediate activities of the passengers on the SS Derna. The bitterness and brutality that smoulder just beneath the surface of the micro-population travelling to Australia fires and inspires tales of travel. Petty constraints and tribulations are amplified in the close quarters of this most unsuitable ship where even the composition of the crew militates against hope and harmony. Essentially minor tyrannies and jealousies, past complaints and present discomfort fester into reminiscences of past experience too horrible to contemplate yet too close to forget. Such is the fate of the passengers on the SS Derna in transit to Australia. On a ship already old and almost incapable of carrying these long-suffering refugees to their promised new land, the lives of the passengers, their escapes, their survival and their ambitions are captured and contextualised in their travels.


Part 2 follows these people from their arrival in Australia to the present. Arrival in Australia does not, initially, appear to produce a more stable experience than they have left. Entering the fundamentally racist and isolated Australian society of the post-war period with little or no English and as little understanding of the culture they are about to make such a major contribution to, Diane Armstrong’s passengers become the survivors of a shattered civilisation who build themselves a new reality. Halting ambitions are tested and changed, achievements are redefined, expectations recrystallize in physical, economic and social circumstances that could not even be imagined in the apparently endless few weeks of the voyage. Incomprehensible distances, unimaginable opportunity and amazing coincidence each play their part in shaping the emerging understanding of these new, though sometimes unwilling, Australians.


The immediacy of the two part structure allows the author to interpolate her own experience, insofar as it is relevant, and to generate perspectives which are often unconscious or beyond the experience of her characters.


Student activities


As you read the book, develop a plot outline separating the story of the SS Derna from the stories of its passengers, as individuals and in groups, and those of the crew. Use your findings to identify the major beliefs and concerns of each group. Discuss whether you agree with Diane Armstrong’s observation that, "Despite its hardships, the journey had kept real life at bay, but now they would have to meet it full on". [p. 221]. Are there different ways of viewing the voyage?


It is not often that a gripping story provides the opportunity to explore the lives of the characters after they have performed their roles within the major plot line. How does access to the stories presented in the second section of the book help us to better understand the achievements of these characters as real people rather than fictionalised characters from a sensational past?


Diane Armstrong has collected a vast set of information from her research and her interviews. If she decided to use additional material to write her next book, what events and characters from The Voyage of their Life should she begin with?




Rather than present a clearly structured polemic on the evils of the ship-owners, the Nazis, the Communists, fascists, government officials and even Immigration assistance groups, Armstrong allows the stories of the passengers to create a cumulative and increasingly compelling picture of an event from which no-one escapes unscathed and few escape guiltless.


This highly generative process provides us with a range of interwoven thematic considerations focusing on culture, family and politics - though none of these is presented with the didactic fervour that a lesser author might employ. In consequence, thematic study of the book offers rich opportunities for the multicultural classroom. Some of the more profitable considerations include:


Student activities


Working in small groups select one of the identified themes of the book and list the characters and events who are central to the development of the theme. Draw a mind map of the theme showing the interrelationships you have established in exploring the theme. Share your mind map with the whole group to develop an overview of the principal concerns of the novel. To what extent do these work together to provide a single theme for the novel?


While revulsion from the physical violence and criminal inhumanity establishes a motivation for each of Armstrong’s characters, it is not the basis upon which they are building their new lives. With reference to two of the individual passengers, establish the ways in which their experience shaped the response of your chosen passengers to resettlement in Australia.

Puurland is presented as an unattractive character though his story is as necessary to the success of the book as those of more likeable people. Consider why Puurland’s beliefs are as important to the way of life the passengers are pursuing as those of Armstrong’s more sympathetic characters.


The Honorable Lieutenant Colonel Ogden Hershaw is identified as being rather dishonourable and his story is not pursued. Without his presence, however, we would lose an important perspective on the chronicle of the voyage. Discuss the ways in which Hershaw’s story helps us to understand the thematic considerations of the book.




The voices of Armstrong’s passengers and crew are so fluent and articulate that it comes as a shock to recognise that they are not each speaking the same language. Public announcements are made in three languages but it is quickly obvious that even that concession requires the passengers to be multi-lingual. Dorothea is hired by Hershaw because types but she also speaks German. Silva Rae gets a job assisting the Purser because she speaks five languages. The Captain is Greek. Hershaw is Norwegian Canadian. The ship sails under a Panamanian flag of convenience. Not all of the passengers are Jewish.


The author pays little attention to the impact that language variations might have on her floating United Nations. The passengers she has access to in the compilation of the story have reached appropriate states of linguistic compromise by the time they are provided with an English voice in The Voyage of Their Life and their stories become literally unaccented.

Perhaps because she observes from a child’s perspective, language difference on the SS Derna is taken for granted by the author, accommodated and neglected as a potential source of conflict - or, at least, suspicion - between different groups on board. Upon arrival in Australia, on the other hand, it becomes a more significant marker. Effectively racist abuse and rejection based on inability to speak English become barriers to appropriate job placement, recognition of credentials and social inclusion. The impact of this language difference has always been the generation of linguistic ghettos in Australia, as it has everywhere that displaced people are relocated.


Though the migrants disperse as they accumulate sufficient social capital to operate independently within their adopted society, the ghettos in Australia, at least, are re-inhabited by successive waves of non-English speaking migrants. Urban areas formerly occupied by Italians and then Greeks now proudly display Vietnamese or Turkish shop signs. Arabic has become an identifiable shop-front language. Lebanese, Iranian and Afghan groups form schools and build distinctively in newly established suburbs.


The broadening of the Australian linguistic pool through multi-cultural immigration has substantially reduced the Anglo-centrism identified by Armstrong at the point of arrival of the SS Derna in 1948. Movement beyond the isolation of the post-arrival linguistic ghettoes into the broader community, shared and universal education and that same governmental level demand for recognition and acceptance of difference has each contributed to an increased acceptance of migrants to Australia.


Though greater tolerance towards migrants may have evolved over the past half century, broadly based xenophobia continues to mark our political reality. Boatloads of refugees foundering in the Indian Ocean become political capital for electioneering and reporters still sensationalise the misfortunes of the displaced as they arrive. Papers, reputations, qualifications and identities are still questioned in isolation from the events that produced them.


Settlement remains a challenge for the new arrival in Australia and the problems are still magnified when English is not the first language of the immigrant. Problems may become distorted further when the topics discussed appear threatening to the audience. Arthur Caldwell’s words as Minister of Immigration in 1948 remain significant, “it is obvious that once these passengers were free from European police supervision, they naturally discussed among themselves various topics including European politics which, to a person looking for trouble, could easily be interpreted as propaganda." (p. 236)


Language for Diane Armstrong extends beyond the essential triviality of tongue to the more fundamental issue of the right to speak. Prisoners in the slave labour camps of the Siberian gulags are reduced to "grunts and curses", others cease to speak at all in the face of unspeakable bestiality. On the other hand, the freedom to communicate does not guarantee effective or accurate communication. The letter from Danusia’s father is left unanswered by the catholic priest for fear of the Polish authorities.


Against this background, the opportunity to tell their stories more than a generation after the events appears as a catharsis for people now settled and confident in their new identities in a land they "had chosen É because it was as far as they could travel from the tragic past without falling off the edge of the world’ [p. 17]. Freedom of speech is considered to be a fundamental right in Australia but it is never guaranteed. The Voyage provides us with ample evidence of how fragile our basic human rights remain.


Student activities


Vassiliki Fatseas has anglicised her name to Vi and still recalls being, with Petro, the only two ‘foreign children’ in her school where the Principal gave her extra lessons in English (P. 402). Find examples of the learning of English and compare the experiences of children and adults from the S.S. Derna.

Has the experience of learning a language in a foreign country changed greatly?

Suggest ways in which learning is assisted by supportive teachers and a friendly environment.

To what extent do you believe that the will to learn must begin at home.


Armstrong makes a number of references to changes in language use caused by horrific experiences or demanded through threat of savage punishment. List these events and consider whether they are satisfactorily resolved in the part 2 stories of the passengers.


The stopovers in Port Said, Aden and Colombo each adds a perspective on the world beyond the SS Derna, and on the world beyond the war in Europe. Consider the language Armstrong uses to describe the people and their work beyond the ship at each port to suggest how the world is changing for the passengers.


Guta is horrified at Barbara’s (Chap 14) beliefs about killing babies. Make a list of the ‘mindless beliefs’ reported in the book. Consider the truth of the author’s statement, "We hold onto the beliefs that support our perception of the world and our place in it, and facts are powerless against prejudice." (p. 371)


Arthur Caldwell’s ‘right to discuss’ speech in the Australian parliament provides a strong basis for civil rights. To what extent does it also release Hershaw, Puuland and Mrs Maulics from responsibility for their reports?


Armstrong comes to understand that the treatment of the Balts by Russians had some startling similarities to that of the Jews by the Nazis but she cannot accept that some people might have tattooed themselves to masquerade as Jews. Consider whether her position is reasonable. Is it possible that Harold Kapp is right about the orphan boys vandalism? What happened to Dr Frant’s torch?


Bob Grunschlag recalls not being able to communicate, "I felt as if I’d suddenly become deaf, mute and invisible. The first words he learns are inappropriate. Fifty years later he considers himself to be Australian despite his accent. Working in small groups, consider what it means to be Australian. How important is language in establishing identity?




Birth, death and marriage are social, physical and even spiritual acts surrounded with significant ceremonies. Aboard the SS Derna, each takes on particular significance as their order is reversed and the burial of the stoker at sea is celebrated in stark simplicity. The probable death of the bullying but forever nameless Estonian is not even recorded while the birth of Halina’s baby is one of the final events of the voyage yet one of the initial events of the landing.


It could be argued that the author must exorcise the memories of death and violence before she can come to acceptable terms with new life for a new land. That Halina’s daughter, Jennifer, is born premature suggests a continuity from sea to shore, even the Captain is moved. Her naming assures a continuity from the past to the future. That she is removed to shore, to care and safety in a new land by St Johns Ambulance Officers dressed in the same terrifying black uniforms that would have spelled certain death in another place at another time appears as a deeply symbolic closure in a book that seeks closure for each of its characters and, perhaps, for the events themselves. The photographs, letters, strips of clothing and simple religious jewellery that establish connection for individuals become symbolic of life and lives past; they anchor memories too painful to be recalled but too important to allow past.


In this context, the SS Derna itself becomes a major character. Weighed down with a responsibility it cannot meet, two of the ship’s three engines collapse irreparably before it reaches Australia. Crawling into the engine itself, the stoker dies from exposure to the heat of the furnace, a final victim whose gesture on behalf of all aboard becomes meaningless, except in his burial.


Food, through which many people define their beliefs, remains a constant issue on the SS Derna. Its type is an initial concern, its quality, its quantity and, after Yom Kippur, even its sameness become issues because it symbolises an apparent lack of concern for the essential differences between the passengers on board. Their backgrounds, their beliefs and their needs are sacrificed to a mindless egalitarianism that, when they finally arrive in Melbourne, is translated by the reporters into a xenophobic witch-hunt. In transit, food forms a constant link with an increasingly distant past.


The disposal of the rotten meat brings carrion birds and sharks alike. Reactions to the stench on one hand and the sight of food being cast out on the other generate a lasting ambivalence. The promised lamb becomes an attraction for the bestiality of the predators and memories are tweaked yet again. The promise of food in profusion in Ceylon is offset against the inedibility of the curries. Petro’s confusion at the promise of chocolate and the shock of its coldness on his teeth provide yet another example of unfulfilled promises. Above each of these more obvious examples is the more coherent and enduring image of Australia as the promised land, the land of milk and honey that many experience for the first time in Fremantle. Joy and unmet expectations mingle continuously and the food of life remains a mix of fulfilment and disappointment. In a sense this repeated experience becomes symbolic of the lives of the SS Derna passengers.


Student activities


Ginette Wajs in white rabbit fur is told she will live in America. By the time she arrives in Australia, the coat has been stolen but she has been crowned Miss Derna in the Crossing the Line ceremony. Suggest how these events may have changed herattitrude to her migration.


The shofar (ram’s horn) essential to the celebration of Rosh Hashana is passed through a schoolyard fence to Leon Wise by an unknown benefactor in Switzerland. Consider why it is such an important symbol for the refugee children at that point in their lives. Consider why the absence of both the shofar and of a rabbi to hold the service seems to be less important on the SS Derna.